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Friday, April 2, 2010

Experiments in Bohemia – the collective laundry of the last century’s writers and artists

I have always thought that the word “Bohemian” has got something infuriatingly bourgeois about it. Some how it is a glib and inadequate classification for some of the most interesting people in modern cultural history. But there it is and here we are. That is the word that has been bestowed by history – and for those who are interested I would heartily recommend Virginia Nicholson’s masterly survey Among the Bohemians – experiments in living 1900 – 1939.

This is a rich and warm-hearted survey of people who in the early part of the twentieth century were linked together by art and eccentricity. It knits together lives entangled and divergent but all of its characters are colourful. They are for the most part artists and writers and Nicholson looks at how their daily lives differed from the norm. She unashamedly and very successfully takes a “laundry list view of history” and her compelling conclusion is that this motley crew of drinkers, dancers, talkers and painters were behind a minor cultural revolution.

So how might a bohemian of the period have been recognised by his or her countrymen? These were people who, in an age of economic uncertainty, prioritised art and beauty a long way above money. Whilst there were a few rich bohemians – they were for the most part, almost comically poor – living on a diet of black coffee and boiled eggs in freezing garret flats. In addition to this and probably most famously, they advocated rather more freedom in sexual relations that was otherwise accepted in their era. It was on this basis that Augustus John’s household came to consist of his wife, his mistress, at times, her other lover – and the collective children of the ensemble. Speaking of children – the raising of the young to be fearful of authority was another Victorian stricture which the bohemians had no truck with. Their children knew upbringings quite different from the rest of the population. Nicholson also shows how the bohemian was marked out by his dress, his (or rather, her) housekeeping, his willingness to travel, and even his dinner.

This patchwork of daily life is interesting for two reasons. Firstly, it clearly shows an historical parting of the ways – with the age of Victoria receding into the past and the modern age of individualism opening up before us. Secondly, it shines a light upon the domestic circumstances, the everyday paraphernalia from which some of the most interesting British art and literature of the 20th century emerged. I am fascinated to learn that Dylan Thomas – whose poems I love – was so poor that he habitually stole clothes from his friends and wracked up colossal bar and hotel bills on their behalf. I have always loved Augustus John’s portrait of the Marchesa Casati (for more on the Marchesa Casati see my earlier post) – and this is enriched by the knowledge of the personal drama that sat behind its production.

I have called Nicholson’s work “warm hearted”. This is because she manages to catalogue her “laundry list” of bohemia humorously, keeping in balance sympathy and admiration for the bohemians and also an awareness of how ill a life without boundaries could sometimes treat them. For all of the colour and drama and notable work produced, for many, poverty, ill education and a chaotic home life were in fact the enemies of promise. Nicholson manages to show this without a trace of self-righteousness and her work is all the richer for it.

I have included a few illustrations of notable bohemians. The images are of Dylan and Caitlin Thomas, Augustus John and Nina Hamnett.

As much as the name annoys me, I must admit to being a bit of a “bohemia” junkie in my book collection. For those who are interested, I have loved reading the following first hand accounts of this community:

- The Life of Dylan Thomas by Constantine Fitzgibbon
- Two Flamboyant Fathers by Nicolette Devas
- Laughing Torso by Nina Hamnett
- Our Spoons Came From Woolworths by Barbara Comyns.

38 comments:

  1. What a wonderful review Hannah, written about a time when class consciousness was giving way to other values, those that people must have aspired to and worked at rather than simply being born to them.

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  2. This sounds fascinating! I'll be sure keep an eye out for it. Thanks for the review.

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  3. The bohemians got their name from living in low-rent gypsy neighborhoods. The French, wrongly, thought the Romani came from Bohemia.

    This book reminds me of the lifestyles of the writers in Hemingway's A Moveable Feast. It is the only book by Hemingway that I ever liked, so Among the Bohemians sounds quite interesting.

    A wonderful review, as always.

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  4. I love this post! I think Bohemian meant different things in different times/places, but it does generally connote people who are poor, creative, and living on the fringes of society. And who doesn't want to read about that? :)

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  5. Fascinating! These days I find myself deviating from the books I usually read and this one seems a perfect pick-up :) Another wonderful review :) Your blog's layout makes me smile too, the pale yellow and the still-life header picture :)

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  6. Morning all (although, it is not in fact morning for all of you....). Thanks so much for visiting and commenting on my blog.

    Elisabeth - yes - it is interesting that you have picked up on the lessening value of class consciousness. i would say that the bohemian community that Nicholson addresses had a more complex relationship to class concepts than had other areas of society - and there was probably more of what would today be called "social mobility" within the art world - witness artists such as Mark Gertler - who came from an extremely poor and disadvantaged background. Having said that, there was plenty of snobbery as well! If you are interested in this areas - you might enjoy a book by Jonathan Rose called "The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes".

    JoAnn - it is a great read. Thanks for visiting

    Charlie - *still* haven't read A Moveable Feast - i will give it a go. Thanks for your visit and kind comment

    Heidenkind - well quite! You are right I think that "Bohemian" means slightly different things to different people - and that is pointed out by Nicholson in her introduction - she effectively says that we all have our own personal definitions.

    Vaishnavi - thanks for visiting and leaving such a kind comment. I find the yellow relaxing and easy to read against - and there is a story behind the header - of which, more later:-)

    Thanks all for visiting - have a great weekend!

    Hannah

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  7. This has been on my reading list for about 2 years, never quite making it to the top. And it's so entirely up my street I can't imagine why I haven't bought it yet. Thanks for this reminder, Hannah, and for the clearsighted review - you've persuaded me!

    www.lampandbook.blogspot.com

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  8. I'd love to read this - I've been aware of it for a while but have never actually got hold of it. Your review has made it sound irresistable! It has always fascinated me how being 'Bohemian' is deemed as an interesting and glamorous life style; I've actually been to 'Bohemia' - a region of Romania - and living in corrugated iron shacks, wearing ragged clothes and getting around by horse and cart certainly doesn't seem glamorous to me! I suppose it just has that aura of being different from the norm about it - people daring to pursue a life style that rejects the usual expectations of middle class life.

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  9. I have never heard of this book, but it sounds amazing. Thanks for blogging about it; your review was superb Hannah.

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  10. This is such a unique book and your post is wonderful. I'm not sure this book is available in India, but I'll be sure to pick it if I find it :)

    I have an award for you! :) http://atpemberley.blogspot.com/2010/04/awards-galore.html

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  11. This book sounds lovely. Virginia Nicholson was on the BBC's Dear Diary programme the other night talking about Virginia Woolf's diary. Worth watching if you have 'on demand'.

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  12. Morning all and hope that you had great weekends.

    Lulu - yes, i saw the book about quite a bit before taking the plunge! It is indeed worth it.

    Booksnob - I envy your trip to Bohemia as I love travelling in easter Europe - and have been to Romania - but not that part.

    Diane - thanks for your kind words!

    Kals - Thank you so much - I'll visit.

    Vintage Reading - thank you for this tip. I will see if i can access this from the internet. Virginia nicholson is a good writer - i think next i would like to try her book "Singled out".

    Thank you all for visiting and commenting

    Happy Monday

    Hannah

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  13. Now I have the Dandy Warhols' "Bohemian Like You" stuck in my head.

    Did you get the sense that some of these people were the real thing, genuinely eccentric, while others were simply jumping into a scene?

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  14. Hi John - thanks for your visit and comment. Yes, definately - although that is something that the author Virginia Nicholson acknowledges - as do other contemporary writers such as Constantine Fitzgibbon and Barbara Comyns. The groupies were part of the scene I guess.

    Hope you get that song out of your head soon....

    Hannah

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  15. What an educated and thoroughly charming review! I'll admit that I don't know much about the bohemians, but this book sounds like it is not only accessible, but also very entertaining as well. I am thinking that I need to take a closer look at this book. Thanks for your wonderful review, I might not have ever heard of this book anywhere else!

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  16. I expect you know this, but when I saw the author's name, I thought she was familiar:

    "Virginia Nicholson was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. After studying at Cambridge University she lived in France and Italy and then worked as a documentary researcher for BBC television. Her first book, Charleston: A Bloomsbury House and Garden -- written in collaboration with her father, Quentin Bell -- was an account of the Sussex home of her grandmother, the painter Vanessa Bell -- Virginia Woolf's sister. She is married, has three children and lives in Sussex, England."

    This was an absolutely fantastic review and I'm off to buy the book today!!

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  17. I have awards for you over at my blog :)

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  18. Zibilee - what a kind comment - thank you. Yes - this book balances information and humour and sympathy very nicely.

    Nan - I have got Virginia Nicholson's "Charleston" book - and love it. Next on my list of her work is a book called "singled out" which is all about the generation of women who were left single by the war - the generation who became the nation's collective "maiden aunts". I do hope that you enjoy the book.

    Vaishnavi - thank you so much! i am on my way over.

    Thanks all for visiting and commenting

    Hannah

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  19. What a fantastic review, the next time I think that my house is a mess I will just call it Bohemian!

    I read and love "Singled Out", a really fascinating insight into women's history both remarkable and ordinary women but both types just as interesting. It never occured to me to see what else Virginia Nicholson had written, this is some on my book wish list - Thanks

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  20. I love your reviews because they always teach me so much! Sounds like a fascinating book!

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  21. I read this back in 2004, shortly after I started blogging. After reading your review, I went back and read mine. Apparently, I was only so-so about it which surprised me because I remember this book most fondly and would like to read it again.
    http://bybeebooks.blogspot.com/2004/06/bohemian-life.html

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  22. Fascinating review! The Bohemian life sounds like a free style eccentric way of living but probably with much less stress than the mainstream. I like how diverse your reviews are and am so glad to have found your blog. Thanks for visiting my blog and leaving a comment!

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  23. I appreciate this wonderful overview of the term bohemian. They 'prioritised art and beauty a long way above money.'

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  24. Thanks for your comments folks!

    Flo - yes the section on their domestic arrangements is very funny.... I am looking forward to Singled Out

    Amused - I am pleased to be of some use!

    Bybee - sometimes I when you re read you feel slightly different and its a funny thing.... i will take a look at your review....

    Bonnie - thank you so much. My interests are literature, history and art with a bit of a leaning to the modern period and an emphasis on social and cultural history - so I try to mix them all together and not focus on any one the whole time. I hope that people enjoy reading as much as I enjoy writing!

    Paul C - thanks very much - it is hard to know how to encapsulate things sometimes.

    Thank you all for visiting and leaving comments - i do love to read them

    Hannah

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  25. Aargh, I can't believe that I started this a few years ago and never finished it. Not because I didn't like it, as I love everything bohemian and I found the book to be engaging and interesting. I think too many books got in the way. Your wonderful review has made me want to hunt it down and finally finish it. Thank you!

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  26. Chasingbawa - I am pleased to read that! thanks for visiting and commenting

    Hannah

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  27. Was Ford Madox Ford included among those covered? I have recently posted on a biography of Hart Crane who for sure qualifies for treatment

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  28. Mel - No - FMF is not really featured - I suspect because he was mostly based on Paris and this is aan Englan focussed book (albeit that it does cover the English bohemian abroad).... I guess that the truth is that the disparate community actually included a large number of notable artists and writers and the author had to cut off somewhere. If you are interested in FMF's life - there is an interesting biography of Jean Rhys which I read recently (before I started blogging) - very recent by Lillian somebody - and that is an interesting source on FMF.

    Speaking of FMF - my copy of Parade End has arrived so I have now joined you read along!

    Thanks for visiting and commenting

    Hannah

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  29. This sounds like a wonderful and interesting read. I have added it to my (too-long list) of to be bought/read books.

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  30. Irisonbooks - enjoy it - and thank you for visiting and commenting

    Hannah

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  31. I didn't think I could possibly want to read this book more, but I was wrong! I'm dying to get my hands on this. I'm happy to hear she never slips into self-righteousness and shows both the advantages and the disadvantages of their lifestyle - I can't imagine any other approach working!

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  32. Nymeth - yes I think that you are right there - it just wouldn't make sense to write about these people on a judgemental basis. Anyway, enjoy!

    Bon weekend
    Hannah

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  33. Great review, Hannah - I really admired and enjoyed this book. Nicholson is so masterly in her use of materials and creation of a narrative. Your Bohemia bookshelf might welcome the addition of Theodora FitzGibbon's memoirs - I read these years ago and no longer have them, but they are a wonderful evocation of the Bohemian life.

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